Digital Entertainment

Comic Book Publishers Plot Comeback via Apple IPad


Newspapers and magazines aren't the only established publishers who've hung hopes for a revival on Apple's iPad. Comic book makers hope to breathe life into such characters as Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk by beaming them on to Apple's (AAPL) new tablet computer.

Disney's (DIS) Marvel comics unit on Apr. 3 released an iPad comic book application that's free to download from Apple's App Store. The software lets fans buy digital versions of more than 500 Marvel comic books for $1.99 each. Readers use their fingertips to swipe through the crisply colored replications of the comics' pages.

The goal is to expand the audience for Marvel, which Disney bought for $4.3 billion last year. "Our app is for comic book lovers as well as lapsed readers—people who might be in their thirties or forties who stopped buying [comic] books after college," says Ira Rubenstein, executive vice-president of Marvel's global digital media group.

Panelfly, a New York startup that distributes digital comic books, plans to release a comic-reading app for the iPad in the coming months that lets users buy and read titles from 50 publishers. Marvel—along with publishers Sterling Comics and Top Cow—plan to distribute titles through Panelfly's app. "There's a huge opportunity to expand the market" by releasing digital comic books on the iPad, says David Steinberger, CEO of ComiXology, a company that helped Marvel produce its iPad software.

Marvel's chief competitor, Time Warner's (TWX) DC Comics, hasn't announced plans for iPad software, but says it is assessing that tablet and other devices. "Our sense is that digital comics will grow and complement the businesses we have already built up through the current network of your local comic book shops and mass market bookstores," says Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Comics, which publishes Batman, Superman, and other popular franchises.

publishers dream of iPad bounty

Startup Graphic.ly, which is part of Microsoft's BizSpark program for fledgling companies, is also developing an iPad application that will let fans trade comments within the pages of digital comics. "The publisher that really ends up making the biggest splash on the iPad is the one that's not going to look to replicate print," says CEO Micah Baldwin.

The publishing industry has high hopes for the iPad, which went on sale in the U.S. on Apr. 3. Publishers of books, magazines, and newspapers are releasing versions of their materials for the tablet computer in hope of capturing readers and advertising revenues. Add the dusty heroes of comic books to those looking for redemption.

Comic books were a $715 million business in the U.S. and Canada in 2008, according to researchers at ICv2, a Web site that tracks the business of popular culture. Japanese comic books and high-design graphic novels aimed at adults and sold in mainstream book stores are strong sellers, according to industry analysts. But demand for traditional superhero-oriented comic books has declined.

There are about 3,000 comic book stores in the U.S., down from about 10,000 in the '90s, according to Marymount Manhattan College professor Kent Worcester, who teaches classes on comics and animation and who co-edited A Comic Studies Reader (University Press of Mississippi, 2008). "There are plenty of towns which have no comic book stores," he says.

Enter the iPad. Publishers hope new digital versions of their titles can turn comics into mass-market entertainment, not just artifacts for collectors. "Hollywood and television have begun to give people what they used to get out of comics," says Marymount's Worcester. Today, episodes of the TV series Lost provide serialized drama, as Superman comics did in the '50s, he says.

Making strips available for consumers to download on a tablet could change "the mentality that comics are just meant to be collected," says Dave Dorman, a freelance illustrator who has drawn for issues of Batman, Star Wars, and numerous additional comics. "Forty years from when I grew up, comics could potentially make a big breakthrough to a new generation," he says.

Panelfly: "lion's share" to publishers

Digital comics existed before the iPad. But the small screen size of Apple's iPhone and other handheld devices didn't bring the illustrations fully to life, publishers say. Milton Griepp, CEO of ICv2, estimates that sales of comics for the iPhone and iPod Touch in 2009 were less than $1 million. Digital comic book sales through the iPad this year will likely be many times that amount, he says. "The iPad is a game-changer for the comics business."

The move to digital comic books is changing the economics for publishers. Panelfly Chief Executive Wade Slitkin says publishers take "the lion's share" of revenues from digital comic books sold through its iPhone app, which cost consumers between $1 and $10. Apple takes 30% of sales.

The iPad isn't the only new digital device comic book publishers are evaluating. Marvel's Rubinstein says the company is also considering publishing for tablets that run Google's (GOOG) Android operating system.

For all of their bold computer graphics and ease of buying, digital comics won't replace paper for some stalwarts. On a recent afternoon in New York, popular comic book store Midtown Comics was packed with young and middle-aged men scouring stands for their superhero fix. "I still prefer coming into the store every week," says Cristoph Miller, a 29-year-old comic collector.

Miller says he's downloaded a few comic book applications for his iPhone. He's looked only at free previews and has yet to spring for new titles.

Marvel and other comic book publishers may not persuade every old-time fan to switch media. But their excitement over the iPad shows just how much the publishing world hopes Apple can polish their prospects.

MacMillan is a reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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